Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sacramental Grace

This picture seemed fitting, but I also recommend A Divine Duet: Ministry and Motherhood
 (and not just because I contributed an essay).

During the church service, my children appeared to be off in their own worlds.  My son was reading a Geronimo Stilton book while my daughter filled out all the pew membership cards with information on the American Girl doll she hopes to receive for Christmas.  Sometimes getting them to sit quietly and still wins the battle over fighting them to pay attention, as I hope that I might take something away from worship for myself.  But as a minister, I often feel guilty that I’m not more intentional about the faith formation of my children. 

We’ve recently joined an Episcopal church, which came as a bit of a surprise for us lifelong Baptists.  But there is something about the liturgy and the evening service of this particular church that drew us in.  I love that communion is the heart of the service and that it takes place weekly (instead of monthly or quarterly like the churches in which I grew up).  And instead of ushers passing golden trays of stale wafers and plastic cups of grape juice to those saved and baptized members of the congregation, in this church we all come forward to receive the elements and share a common cup.  It is open to all, and there is a special joy in watching tiny children toddle up to the priest or stretch out their hands from their perch in a parent’s arms to take a wafer.  There is a welcome in seeing smiling faces as they pass by and in hearing the words of blessing, “The body of Christ”, “The cup of salvation” shared again and again.  The kids want to sit in the front so that they can be first in line, and even though I’m more of a “back row Baptist”, I’m just glad they are eager to be part of the service. 

This week, as we filed back into our pew, Maryn showed me the wafer that she had not yet eaten.  She held it up, broke it, and whispered to me, “The body of Christ,” and I knew that God was there, in that moment, in that bread, in the grace of a child who is learning faith through imitation.  The mystery of faith can’t be any more real than this. 

After the church family shared a meal and the children and adults separated for Christian education programs, I joined other adults back in the sanctuary to talk about the primary meal that connects us as Christians: Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving.  The priest, who is as new to this church as we are, shared his thoughts on the sacrament of communion, saying that in our gathering around the communion table, we “are given a model of how all other meals should function, as an opportunity of grace.”  I had to smile as he started off saying, “Whether Baptists, Catholics, anything in between, or nothing, we are naturally sacramentalists.”  While I’ve been struggling to reconcile a new conversion of sorts, it was a reminder that it may not be as big of a shift as I make it out to be.  We are all branches of the family of God, and all humans seek meaning in the ordinariness and mysteries of our lives. 

I took notes so I could continue to ruminate on the sacramental theology that was shared by Rev. Eric Long (quotes are reconstructed to the best of my memory and notes):

“In the sacraments, God uses the stuff of life to bless our lives.  God breaks in and shows us the depth and possibility of life.  God gets our attention and offers [God]self.”  I learned that communion is based on the Emmaus story, when Jesus’ disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus after his crucifixion and a man joins them and asks why they are troubled.  They tell him what has happened, not knowing that it is the resurrected Christ that walks with them until they stop to eat and he gives thanks and breaks bread, just as he had done at his last meal with them, when he had told them his body would also be broken for them.  They remembered and they knew him in the breaking of the bread.  Just as my child, who shows little interest in church, still knows Jesus in the breaking of the communion bread.

“God uses the physical to touch and bless us.  This is what we refer to as sacraments.  Jesus is the greatest example…God became a physical being and entered our world, our stories.  He took his body, gave thanks for it, and broke it.  He did not hoard the gift, but shared it with us.  In communion, we literally take Jesus into us, receiving him, and trusting that he will help us to become who God says we are.”  We trust that we can be full in our empty and broken places and that grace can transform us into who we were created to be.  “The act of communion becomes a sacrament only as we join together in community, remembering who we are (not self-made, disjointed individuals, but made one in our baptism).”  In the brokenness of our world reflected in the bad news shared in the media, in the division of hatred and polarization, we are sorely in need of this reminder, this challenge to gather together like a dysfunctional family around the Thanksgiving dinner table.  We may not ever agree, but we can learn to listen to one another as we seek to live together in peace and work together for justice.

On a smaller and more personal level, I couldn’t help but think about how often family meals are a great frustration in our house, yet communion, the model for all meals, is the highlight of the church service for my children.  How can I shift from the stress and frustration of my own expectations and provide space for God to be present and offer grace?  What if in saying grace (when I remember to do so), I actually expected Grace to show up?  What if I invited Jesus to be present and believed that he was with us in the breaking of bread together?

What if I could see all of my struggles, my joys, my daily endeavors (parenthood, career, relationships) as sacraments and give thanks for them, offer them up for God to transform, and give them away instead of holding on tightly in fear? 

What if we treated all of life as a sacrament, an opportunity to let grace enter our lives and transform us? 

This Thanksgiving, I offer thanks for unexpected grace and pray that it continues to show up in beautiful, mysterious, transforming ways.  Come, Lord Jesus.  May it be so.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Narrative of Grace

A picture of a much younger Brady who fell asleep against his will when he was "not at all sleepy" and did NOT need a nap
Bedtime is not my favorite.  I had pictures in my head of how it should be before I had kids: starting with warm bubble baths for giggling, sweet-smelling children, followed by cozy pajamas and reading books snuggled in bed.  There would be kisses, and they would drift off to dreamland while John and I would have the time to catch up on our day and have some down time for ourselves.  Then we actually had children.  And these children, unlike their parents, HATE the thought of sleep.  Have I mentioned that we went four straight years without sleeping through the night, and it's been over four years since either of them took naps without being sick?  They will try any tactic to delay the inevitable (and in my mind, steal the few precious bits of "free time" we have).  I relate it to the "whack-a-mole game" that Glennon Melton of Momastery describes.  Instead of sweet dreams and sweet freedom, we take turns attending to shouted demands from the upstairs dictators ("I need water!"  "I need you to lie down with me!"  "I'm not sleepy!"  "I need a light!"  "NO!  I can't sleep with the light on."  "I'm too hot/cold/hungry.")  until one of us snaps.

Each night at bedtime, Brady declares he wants to hug me forever.  He's a very sweet and kindhearted boy whose love language is physical touch, but I know this is essentially a delay tactic.  The other night, when I was able to extract myself after a few minutes of snuggling, he stopped me by asking, "When did I hug you and daddy for the first time?"  I paused to think, but couldn't come up with an answer.  I can remember his first (open mouthed) kisses, and I faithfully wrote down most every milestone (first step, first tooth) in the baby book, but this is one I couldn't trace.  And not for the first time in my parenting journey, one of my children brought me to the realization that maybe I have it all wrong.  Perhaps the most important milestones are the ones we let slip by.

I'm a follow-the-rules type person.  I'm a planner that loves a checklist, and parenting has provided this in the form of developmental guidelines.  Since pregnancy, I've had the notion that if I followed the checklists and guidelines, my children would fall right into line and meet the expectations.  All this has truly done is set me up for disappointment.  Not because my children have failed, but because I have held them to standards that are more about me than about them.

I connected with a recent post written by Micha Boyett at A Deeper Story about how her book on Benedictine spirituality has impacted how she thinks of parenting and her spiritual life:

"It’s amazing how my spiritual life mirrored my mothering life. Complete the tasks. Don’t screw up. Serve the right way. Lay down hard lines. Fail. (I always felt like I was failing.)  I have a feeling that the kind of parent we are will always mirror how we believe God sees us. The gift of the past three years in my life has been the process of letting grace sink into me. Even though I believed in grace before, it always existed underneath my internal spiritual checklists. I was frantic to please God. Before I could loose the spiritual anxiety in my mind I had to first believe that God’s grace was real enough to matter. That God could really want me, whether I was impressive or not."
I want to write a new narrative, one of grace for me and my family.

I want to believe that we all enough, and all is well enough just as it is.

I want to see that when things don't go according to plan, it may not be a failure.  Or if it is, that's okay, too.  And I want to model for my children that making mistakes does not mean that they are failures.  I want to show them grace.

I want to mark the milestones that matter, the times they make a connection and something finally sinks in.  I want to remember the times they want to hang on and see it for love instead of clinginess.  I want to celebrate each picture drawn just for me and to savor the silly times of laughing until we can barely breathe.  I want to see the grace of God in these moments.

I want to celebrate the milestone of our creative boy, who instead of throwing a fit recently when a toy was taken away as a behavioral consequence, decided to write this note instead:

I want to remember that we are all in the process of becoming, and to be grateful for my children who show me the way to grace.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

At Nana's House

The kids play with a miniature ceramic tea set with broken handles on my nana's green shag carpet.  I remember the silver tea set I played with as a child, but I know it must be tarnished and hidden in the basement.  I have half a thought to go looking for it, but when I open the door to the basement, the steps are blocked with boxes that she has tossed down.  She can no longer climb the steep steps and has no way to store what won't fit upstairs.  We find trash frozen in the freezer so that it won't stink up the house until someone can come to carry it off.  I think about how fastidious she was when she was able, how we would tease her about how she wouldn't sit and talk after family meals but had to be up washing dishes and straightening up her already tidy house.  I would bring back cheap trinket souvenirs for her from our vacations until she started "hiring" me to come and dust all of her knick knacks.  Lesson learned.  But on a recent visit, she handed me a familiar plastic Shamu coffee cup for me to take home.  When I took it from her frail hand, it was heavier than I expected, and she explained that she had been filling it with her spare change for her great grandchildren.  I'm reminded of how she and my papa used to give me my weekly allowance, a five dollar bill folded neatly in thirds, and my weekly school lunch money in change in a brown paper bag, again folded in thirds, and secured with a rubber band.

My husband and I are the ones to slip them money now for the groceries and bills that Social Security doesn't fully cover.  My mom tries to refuse it, guilty and ashamed, but I remind her of the years she worked and struggled to take care of me, working multiple jobs and barely getting by.  She had nothing to put away to save as it all went to living expenses and the opportunity to provide a better future for me.  As a child I pleaded with her to give up a job so that I could see her more and wouldn't have to camp out some nights on my grandparents' pullout sofa while she worked the late shift.  I even promised that I wouldn't ask for anything for Christmas.  I realize now that must have broken her heart as she was working to pay for the roof over our head and the meals on the table.  Now I assure her that we have enough to share, that it is our pleasure, while also feeling guilty and ashamed myself that the little bits we offer aren't enough to replace her leaking roof, to provide a better life for them, to be more present and close in their lives.

Nana gave up driving years ago, but I remember having to call her when I missed the school bus in middle school and she would reluctantly drive the few miles to our house to take me to school.  It made me nervous how she would keep her feet on both the gas and brake pedals as she drove, making for a jerky ride.  She preferred to walk anyway and try to entice me for walks around the block after we ate meals at her house.  I, a chubby kid, would plead that we could drive around the block instead; pushing the pedals would be exercise, after all.  I wonder if she misses getting out.  She stays at home except for the occasional doctor's appointment.  We say she is lucky to have relatively good health and still such a sharp mind at 92, but she is longing for something better, the "golden years" she says she never really had since my grandfather died twenty years ago.

I have watched her and my mother grow closer over the couple years they have lived together, relying on one another and caring for each other in their weaknesses.  They have learned how to communicate better, to show the love that has come more easily between them and me but that has been difficult between the two of them.  We are a family of women, mostly matriarchs.  My grandmother is the oldest of six siblings, with just one baby brother among six girls.  My great-grandmother died in her nineties after outliving several husbands and lived independently until her death.  My grandmother has been widowed for over twenty years now, and my mom, my grandmother's only living child, has been alone since my dad died in his forties (I was five and my brother was eighteen at the time).  There has been much hardship, but it has born a gritty determination, a strong faith, independence, and strength in my grandmother.  I feel grateful that this, along with her love, is her legacy to me.  She is proud that I have always loved to read and learn and takes credit for this (where credit is due).

She wants me to take her dishes, the dishes I wished for years ago when we still gathered around the table regularly for family meals and holiday dinners.  They are totally impractical for our life--you can't put them in the dishwasher or microwave, they are delicate and fragile, and difficult and expensive to replace.  We have small children and a small house, so fine china has never been a necessity or even a good idea.  While I long for this connection to tradition and memories, I have resisted boxing it up.  It is a goodbye that I'm not ready to say, a marker of transitions that remain unspoken.  But there are other things I am collecting and packing up as I think about our stories and what makes up a legacy.